Displaying a level of pessimism which surpassed even last year’s conference, attendees at the Munich Security Conference 2016 last week were forced to reckon with the consequences stemming from the reassertion of Russian power, specifically in Syria.
As a result, many of the attendees were actively contemplating the possibility of a larger conflict within Europe What was also clear from the conference; however, is that without a clear strategic vision of how to incorporate Russia and its interests into the post-Cold War order, security and political risk are both set to increase in the near future.
The sword is the axis of the world
Two years ago in Ukraine, Russia crossed the Rubicon and definitively broke from the architecture of the post-Cold War order and there will be no turning back.
As the Carnegie Moscow Center recently noted, the West can either accept this and recognize Russian interests in its near abroad, or it can choose not to recognize these interests and subsequently sanction Russia until it returns to the world order fold.
However, even if the latter course is followed, the West must re-examine its tactics to see if they are having the desired effect on Russia. While the economic effects are clear, what is also clear is that these effects have had zero effect on Russian foreign policy.
In fact, it can be argued that sanctions and attempted isolation by the West have made Russia even more obdurate. Acknowledging de Gaulle’s “The sword is the axis of the world.” maxim, Russia is using its military involvement in Syria to force the West to acknowledge its security parity, along with China, in resolving global conflicts.
Lack of strategic trust
From the Russian perspective, the West, especially Europe, has overestimated the utility of globalization as being an enabler of conflict resolution. The only hard power recently exercised on the continent was usually displayed by its security guarantor, the U.S, in conjunction with its strongest regional military allies, the UK and France.
Exemplified in the Balkan Crises approximately twenty years ago, conflict with Russia was foreshadowed even then in the race to control the Pristina airport in the aftermath of the Kosovo War.
This incident, occurring when U.S-Russian relations were ostensibly better, as well as today’s conflicts in Ukraine and Syria are all indicative of a lack of trust and unwillingness to work together as partners with common interests.
Because of this, several Munich Security Conference attendees speculate that the number of regional flashpoints of West-Russia conflict will only grow and further metastasize on the European body politic.
The future of world order
While cooperation on specific tactical issues such as Ukraine and Syria may still be theoretically possible, fundamental issues of world order and Russia’s place within it still need to be addressed.
The longer these larger strategic issues of world order remain unresolved, the more conflict with Europe can be expected. Specifically for the U.S, recent Chinese missile placements in the South China Sea have reminded the world that Russia is not the only power looking for revisions to the post-Cold War order.
Nine years ago at the previous Munich Security Conference, Russia argued against costly humanitarian interventions by and foreshadowed its coming rift with the West.
Within the pessimistic undercurrent of the Munich Security Conference 2016, the clear implication is that there will be yet another flashpoint by next year’s conference that current participants are unable to foresee and forestall without working together.
Without some earth-shattering dialogue, akin to the recent Papal meeting with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, this pessimism is set to continue.